Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Trigger Warnings

Stanley FormanBoston Herald American

Every time the 9-11 anniversary rolls around, we see clips of the media coverage of that day (sometimes, as in the case of MSNBC, they run their Today show coverage in real time).  I only need to watch a few minutes of those planes crashing into the towers to feel my blood pressure rise and my heart rate skyrocket.  Something about those people going to work in the morning, like any other day, only to become victims of a most horrendous act.  The falling people, followed by crumbling buildings, and then the pile of burning, ashy rubble.  The memories flood back.  The rage follows me throughout the day, and I wind up angry with myself for feeling the way I do.  It seems that if I am enlightened and balanced as a human being, I should not give into such primal instincts as hatred for another.  But in the same breath, I also feel that rage is wholly justified given the circumstances.  In short, I am again, as I was on that day, deeply conflicted and disturbed, even though I am 3000 miles away and more than a decade beyond the act itself.

As we head into another school year, there is a debate among teachers, parents and students regarding trigger warnings.  When we hear the word “school” and “trigger” we think of school shootings, and certainly a school shooting might warrant a trigger warning when it is discussed in class, but should students be warned ahead of time when the course content or the discussion of that content might disturb people?

According to an article in The New York Times (May 17, 2014), “Colleges across the country…have been wrestling with student requests for what are known as ‘trigger warnings,’ explicit alerts that the material they are about to read or see in a classroom might upset them or, as some students assert, cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in victims of rape or in war veterans.”  Jennifer Medina, the author of the article, goes on to say “The debate has left many academics fuming, saying that professors should be trusted to use common sense and that being provocative is part of their mandate.  Trigger warnings, they say, suggest a certain fragility of mind that higher learning is meant to challenge, not embrace.”

I’m wondering, given recent events, if life should not come with a trigger warning.  The twisted bodies, some still strapped to their airline seats, victims of a missile fired at a commercial plane over war-torn Ukraine.  The torn and fragmented bodies on the dusty streets of Israel and Gaza.  The murder of an unarmed black teenager in Missouri.  The dead mounting up in dreadfully understaffed and under-equipped hospitals in Africa, the victims of Ebola.  The poor souls, some dead, some barely alive, huddled on mountains and in desert canyons, hiding from ISIS militants intent on killing every last person.  School shootings, murders of innocents, rapes, torture, brutality, cruelty to animals—all every day occurrences, all need trigger warnings.

One of the first harrowing and controversial sets of photographs depicting a news event was carried in newspapers across the country in the 1970s.  They were taken by Stanley Forman of the Boston Herald American.  (For a good analysis, read Nora Ephron’s essay in the November 1975 issue of Esquire entitled, “The Boston Photographs.”)  The three pictures show a fire fighter rescuing a woman and her child on a fire escape, smoke and heat swirling around them.  In the second frame, something goes horribly wrong.  The iron staircase pulls away from the building, and all three—fireman, woman and child—plummet to earth.  The fireman catches a rung of the extension ladder and saves himself.  The toddler’s fall was broken by the woman’s body so the child survived.  The mother did not.  According to Ephron, the newspapers debated whether to run the pictures.  “They are pictures of death,” Ephron writes, “of that split second when luck runs out, and it is impossible to look at them without feeling their extraordinary impact and remember, in an almost subconscious way, the morbid fantasy of falling, falling off a building, falling to one’s death.”  She ends her essay with these words:  “they are great pictures, breathtaking pictures of something that happened.  That they disturb readers is exactly as it should be…”

When I was teaching eighth grade in a Catholic school, a “Right-to-Life” group sent me a carton of full color brochures of various burned and dismembered fetuses to distribute to my eighth grade students as a way of proving that abortion is murder.  I opened the box and felt as if someone had smashed me in the back of the head with a baseball bat.  I guess my horror and nausea would mean the organization had a successful campaign on its hands.  I thought it shameful, and I refused to distribute the material.  I got more mileage out of teaching them that every human life matters, and that every human being has the potential to better the world, and that is why abortion is wrong.  I taught them that actions come with consequences, and they must be prepared to take responsibility for their actions so that innocent babies are not destroyed.  Beheaded, mutilated children were horrors that would overwhelm the lesson with abstract gore and violence.  The subject of Roe versus Wade, of abortion versus life, is more complicated and nuanced than that.  I thought the issue, and my students, deserved something better, something more balanced and less traumatizing.  Something they could relate to, there on the cusp of young adulthood and a future of difficult decisions in a confusing world.  Abortion is a moral issue, not just about dilation and curettage.

Should students receive trigger warnings in a classroom if something disturbing will be presented?  Should literature teachers slap warnings on books with traumatic scenes?  Do students need to be protected from bad things, disturbing images, violence and bloodshed?  As a responsible instructor, if I were to show a film with graphic violence or bloodshed, I would mention it to the class beforehand.  I certainly would not force a student to watch something he or she did not want to watch, and I would be sensitive to the needs of my students.  Good teaching and life-changing experiences in the classroom mean teachers must challenge thinking, awaken young minds, push people to confront unpopular truths about themselves, about the world in which they live and help them make the moral or ethical choice.

“Do I dare disturb the universe,” T.S. Eliot asks in his famous poem.  I would argue that we should be disturbed every day of our lives.  We witness human beings committing acts of atrocity on their fellow human beings, on animals, on nature, on our planet.  We are duplicitous, violent creatures who often use our much-ballyhooed higher order thinking skills to do some of the worst evil imaginable.  In short, it is a big bad world out there with some very nasty people.  But there is good, too, and truth, and beauty, and moments of pure grace and exhilaration.  But without the darkness, would we know the light?  We can be cautious and prepare our students for the difficult, traumatic experiences they will encounter in this life.  But we cannot coddle them or sell them a sugar-coated vision of a world that does not exist.  We must be sensitive to our students’ needs, but we should not fail to teach them the truth.  Life is hard and mean, but it is beautiful and magnificent, too, sometimes all together in the same instant.

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Alchemist

Maybe I’ve reached The Age of Diminishing Memory.  I now find that when scanning the shelves that there are books I could swear I’ve read already, yet when I open them, there are no annotations.  The spine is solid with no creases or cracks.  The book is in pristine condition, and I am left to ponder, did I read it or was it a dream?  The Alchemist (HarperOne, 2006) by Paulo Coelho, a novel with a plot ironically supported by a dream, is just such a book.

At its heart, the story is a simple one, an allegory that reads suspiciously like a number of other works only lighter and with less philosophical depth.  A poor shepherd goes in search of his destiny after experiencing a recurring dream where a child tells him to go to the pyramids in Egypt where he will find hidden treasure.  He seeks out a Gypsy fortune teller who assures him that “dreams are the language of God.”  Once she is assured of payment, she tells the boy to go to Egypt.  This, of course, he had already decided to do.  The woman goes on to say that “It’s the simple things in life that are the most extraordinary.”  If you are following all of this so far, the story is one that is easily predictable and unfortunately, not very involving.  Coelho mixes in some Judeo-Christian philosophy and symbolism—the Sacred Heart of Jesus in the Gypsy woman’s room, a rather strange choice of d├ęcor for a fortune teller, is but one example.

The boy embarks on his journey—quest?—to find the pyramids as well as his treasure, experiencing many different events along the way.  Echoes of nearly every other epic quest story rebound off the pages of Coelho’s work.  Our hero is often waylaid and forced to accept employment or interact with villagers throughout his journey.  The girl he falls in love with is named Fatima, and he learns that true love should not keep one from his “Personal Legend.”  Fatima proves true, but he leaves her behind to finish his quest.  And of course, the quest proves circular, taking him back to where he came from so that he can find his treasure.

The story is neat and derivative, and other writers have simply done it better.  I have heard that teachers assign this book for summer reading, and I guess that works.  The story is free of sexual acts and overt violence, which makes it the kind of G-rated text that will not offend while offering some overworked “philosophy” and platitudes.  I’m not sure it is the best book to keep students interested on those lazy summer days.

Coelho seems to want to make the case that his novel is important literature.  In his introduction to the tenth anniversary edition, he talks about what stands in our way when we try to achieve our dreams.  “First:  we are told from childhood onward that everything we want to do is impossible,” he writes.  Then we encounter the tethers of love:  “We know what we want to do, but are afraid of hurting those around us by abandoning everything in order to pursue our dream.”  Our third obstacle, Coelho believes, is fear, “fear of the defeats we will meet on our path.”  This all begins to sound very familiar, and for adults, one would be better served to read Chuang Tzu, Pema Chodron, or Thich Nhat Hanh.  Indeed, Greek philosophy, Christian mystics, and any of the retellings of the quest for the Holy Grail will offer those who are searching for their “Personal Legend” some inspiration.  Literature across cultures is rife with heroes searching for their destiny or living out their fate against the choices they have made.  The Alchemist is not exceptional nor unique.

In the end, Paulo Coelho offers a superficial take on the search for one’s ultimate destiny.  He never puts the central character at true risk.  The boy literally faces little challenge; he must sell his sheep, but he finds the funds to replace them many times over.  He finds gold and is later robbed, but he manages to discover riches far more valuable.  He is beaten by thugs, but recovers quickly without permanent damage.  His journey eventually leads him back to where he started, and we are left to ponder what all the fuss was about in the first place, and possibly why we did not pick a better story teller to take us there.  There is a reason why this book sat unmarked on my shelves if indeed I did read it once upon a time, and why the authors mentioned above, in comparison, have suffered creases, broken spines, dog-eared pages, and endless notes and highlighting.  Those books never leave you; The Alchemist was long gone as soon as I closed the cover.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

It is rare to find a book that makes you laugh and cry in the same instant, but Roz Chast’s memoir Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (Bloomsbury, 2014) does just that.  Chast is a cartoonist at The New Yorker, and this book features her unique drawings illustrating the story of her parents’ declining years.  The title comes from the moment when she attempts to discuss their final arrangements with them, causing both parties to make a quick exit to avoid the discussion.

George and Elizabeth Chast are in their 90s when their daughter begins chronicling their story in words and pictures.  They were born ten days apart and grew up within two blocks of each other in East Harlem before moving to their apartment in Brooklyn where Chast grew up.  “My parents referred to each other, without any irony, as soul mates,” she tells us.  She quotes her mother:  “The rocks in his head match the holes in mine!”  “Ditto,” her father replies.

What follows is a story both intimate and heartbreaking, yet also common in a country where people are living longer, meaning children often must become parents as mom and dad become children, a reversal of roles that is difficult and fraught with angst and desperation.  Her father, George, is an anxious, unassuming man who taught languages to high school students.  Chast tells us that her father “chain-worried the way others might chain-smoke.  He never learned to drive, swim, ride a bicycle, or change a lightbulb…Some of this incompetence was related to his chronic anxiety…” He worries about making mistakes to the point of neurotic paralysis.  As the story progresses, he slips further and further into senile dementia.  As sad as this is, she recounts some hilariously funny moments with him.  When she takes him to buy new underwear, he catches a glimpse of the display ad featuring a toned and well-muscled model in briefs.  “It looks like these men have breasts,” her father says as he stares at the defined chest.  Later on the same shopping trip, she attempts to buy him a red sweater.  “I can’t wear that!” he says, mortified.  When Chast asks why, he tells her, “It’s red!  Communism.”

Her mother is the dominant parent, strong of will and difficult in temperament.  She worked as a vice-principal in an elementary school, “a job for which she was perfectly suited,” Chast tells us.  “She was good at telling people what to do.  She was decisive, good in a crisis, and not afraid of making enemies.”  When angered, he mother would deliver, as she puts it, “A blast from the Chast.”  She has a volcanic anger inside of her, and Chast and her father are often the recipients of the explosive outbursts.  But it is this steely will and strong personality that carries her mother through the death of her first child as well as her own aging and that of her husband.  She remains, throughout the book, a force to be reckoned with and a memorable character.

When her parents can no longer function in their apartment, Chast must make the decision that haunts those who perform the role of caregiver for their parents:  do I dare put them into assisted living?  After scouting several places, she finds a suitable facility and transports her parents there.  Then comes the task of cleaning out the apartment where they have lived for almost fifty years.  In this section, she includes not drawings, but actual photographs of the apartment showing the clutter and detritus of life, stacked in every available nook and cranny.  Old eye glasses, electric shavers, books, pencils, pens, purses, all of it destined for the junk pile.  Chast elects to keep photo albums, her father’s reference books and other articles that are precious to her memory of a difficult childhood with eccentric parents.

Once in the facility, things fall apart.  Her father develops bed sores and pneumonia, and once he is gone, her mother begins her slow descent to the end.  Chast describes her mother’s final days, indeed both her parents’ ends, with clarity and grace, never shying away from the horrible truth of what it is to grow old.  The financial burden is horrendous, costing thousands a month for their care, and she must balance diminishing resources with meeting her parents’ needs.  Death is rendered in Technicolor detail.  She even includes several drawings she made of her mother’s body in the hospital room after she dies, simply because she “didn’t know what else to do.”

I was profoundly moved by this book, and once I finished it late on a summer night, I sat for a while contemplating the work of art I had just read.  Roz Chast offers a funny, sad, yet clear-eyed and unflinching account of her parents’ end.  After many years, their absence still “feels incredibly strange” to her.  “They still appear in my dreams,” she writes.  “In the ones with my mother, I usually am about to go somewhere with my friends or my husband or my kids, but suddenly, she begins to collapse and I have to take care of her.  My father usually appears sitting at our kitchen counter, drinking tea, and reading the newspaper, and he is not worried.”  George Chast, the most anxious man, is anxious no more.  And Elizabeth, his partner for life, has found peace as well.  No more blasts from the Chast.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage

“The tricky thing about being a writer,” Ann Patchett writes in her memoir This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage (HarperCollins, 2013), “is that in addition to making art you also have to make a living.”  She had my attention with that first line in the first essay.  Her work here is a compendium of pieces published in a variety of magazines and journals over the years, and includes what I later discovered to be her most famous essay on the writing life:  “The Getaway Car:  A Practical Memoir about Writing and Life, ” which first appeared in an online publication called Byliner.

Patchett began her life in letters at Seventeen magazine where she published several short fictional stories.  She asked her editor for a nonfiction assignment, figuring that at most she could publish one or two pieces of fiction in the magazine’s pages each year.  However, “A writer of nonfiction, on the other hand, could publish an article every issue, sometimes multiple articles in a single issue.”  She hoped to free herself from the chains of making a living so she could write.  She worked as a teacher tending “to the creativity of others” which left her dead tired and devoid of creativity of her own.  She also tried waitressing, but the job left her so exhausted at the end of the day that she literally fell into bed.  Her work at Seventeen would be the breakthrough however the book review the magazine assigned her had to be rewritten “a half a dozen times,” and in each revision she was asked “to consider another aspect of the novel.”  She realized quite quickly that for every ten story ideas she pitched, only one would be given the go-ahead.  A lucky break comes when a writer fails to meet a deadline on an article addressing procrastination, and Patchett is asked to step in at the eleventh hour as the magazine is going to press.  She trained herself to be the go-to writer, and the discipline pays off.  “Magazine work was an uncertain business,” she writes, “assignments were killed on a whim, checks were late, and there was always someone who owed me expenses—but I never lost sight of how much easier it was than busing tables or grading papers.”

“The Getaway Car” explores her early life as well as her writing process.  Patchett may have decided not to teach, but she makes a clear, refreshing and wise teacher on these pages.  She affirms that sense of awe and wonder in the writer’s life and work, and even though there are disappointments and discouragements, she remains focused on the goal:  good, moving prose.  These are lessons she learns from her mentors, poet Jane Cooper, novelist Allan Gurganus and short story specialist Grace Paley, each of whom gets his or her due in the essay.  She also gives the reader one of the best descriptions of how an idea comes to fruition and in the birthing process, moves far away from the colorfully rich concept that once lived in whatever part of the brain responsible for inspiration.  “Everything that was beautiful about this living thing,” she writes about the completion of the book, “all the color, the light and movement—is gone.  What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled.  Dead.  That’s my book.”  And that is the challenge of rendering ideas into prose.

The title of the collection is about her courtship and marriage to her husband.  She also explains how she came to own one of the most important independent bookstores in her hometown of Nashville, Tennessee.  The last two essays, though, are real heartbreakers.  One details her life with a beloved dog, Rose, and how animals deepen our life experiences and make even painful times bearable.  Again, Patchett’s personality is revealed in the details, especially how Rose enters her life.  However, it is her evocation of the end of the dog’s life that sticks in the heart.  “Sometimes love does not have the most honorable beginnings, and the endings, the endings will break you in half.  It’s everything in between we live for.”

In “The Mercies,” Patchett explains her relationship to her childhood teacher, a nun from the Sisters of Mercy order.  Now both of them are much older, and Sister Nena is nearing the end of her life and must, for the first time, move to a small apartment in a dicey area of town and live by herself.  It is a moving and poignant essay that avoids sentimentality and over-wrought emotions in favor of clear-eyed prose.  As they have lunch together, the elderly nun, upon reflecting on the death of a friend, raises the question of where the soul goes after we die.  Here is a woman who has dedicated her life to religious service asking the former student for wisdom.  “Nobody’s sure,” Patchett tells her.  The nun, staring into her own mortality, tells her that her friend was sure.  “I know God made us,” she tells Patchett, “but I’m not sure about what happens afterward.”

“What do you want to happen?” Patchett asks her.

“I want God to hold me…”

“You above all others,” Patchett responds.  “You first.”

I loved the book and found her an exhilarating and wise writer.  I took those novels of hers from the middle of the “to read” pile and put them on top.  So many books.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Wait, What?--Short Attention Span Theater

I’ve been noticing something in class the last few years and it disturbs me.

When I started teaching years ago, I was told by my mentor teacher to change activities every twenty minutes within a lesson.  So, about halfway through the class hour, I would move from discussion to worksheet, from lecture to group work.  Occasionally, if the lesson allowed, I’d change three times an hour, moving from a quick explanation to group work to presentations.  When I did ignore my mentor’s advice and lectured the entire hour, or assigned individual work for the duration, the students became antsy around—you guessed it—the twenty minute mark.

Now what I have noticed is that I must change activities three to four times an hour.  It is short attention span theater.  Often, things move so fast that I feel like we’ve all be inhaling helium or been caught up in a Charlie Chaplin flick.  No more than five complete sentences and we’re off to the races—seat work, group work, group presentation, discussion, wrap up.  Certainly makes the day go faster, but I’m not sure we’re learning more.

The bottom line, there is increasing need for captivating stories or visuals in the classroom as well as shifting activities to keep students motivated and involved in the lesson.  And it takes a perceptive instructor to orchestrate the learning, ready on a moment’s notice to shift the lesson to keep the students focused and on task.

What does this mean for education and teachers in the future?  According to the Chicago Tribune News, “The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has poured more than $4 billion into efforts to transform public education in the U.S., is pushing to develop an ‘engagement pedometer.’  Biometric devices wrapped around the wrists of students would identify which classroom moments excite and interest them—and which fall flat.  The foundation has given $1.4 million in grants to several university researchers to begin testing the devices in middle-school classrooms this fall.”  Welcome to performance art as education, with teachers measured the way popular television is rated—by how many viewers they have and how often those viewers want to change the channel in the middle of a lesson.

There is a loss of deep thinking and analysis in nearly every area of our lives and I’ve even noticed attention deficits in myself.  At home, I absolutely cannot read with the television on in the same room.  Instant headache.  I am drawn to the stories on the TV and the dialogue and words on the page begin to intermingle to the point where my mind is overflowing with fragments and nonsensical narratives like some kind of bizarre soup concocted by a schizophrenic cook.  I require sustained focus in a quiet room or face a debilitating headache that will last for hours after the television is turned off or the book is put away.  I simply cannot multi-task, and in our society, those who cannot multi-task are made to feel inept and slow.

This is the point in the essay when I should have some answers.  How can we counteract this problem?  I don’t know.  I’m still trying to figure it out.  But I am switching activities in my lessons more frequently.  I actually try to talk at a lesser length and utilize video clips and photography to enrich the lesson, although I worry that using pictures instead of words to transmit complex ideas might be sending the wrong message and offer a much too shallow rendering of those difficult ideas.  When I do need to speak to my students for a longer length of time, I make sure to prepare what I will say and economize with my words.  If I can, I utilize story to convey the lesson, because I think storytelling is something with which I can hold their attention.  At least I think I hold their attention based on careful observation, which is a challenge given that I am both conveying the lesson and trying to gauge their reaction and focus.  Maybe that pedometer would be helpful.

There are many tools that can help keep students focused, so what every teacher must do is keep up with technology.  Technology is key.  Our students use a variety of methods to communicate and convey information, and we need to be right there with them if we are to keep their attention.

As for me personally, I turn off the television when I am reading, or if my wife is watching and I want to read, I go to another room.  When I am writing or looking at student essays, I limit anything that I know will distract me.  Even song lyrics can pull my attention away, so instrumental music is about the only thing I’ll play when working.

I have also made it a point to find quiet time every day.  I devote at least a half hour to silent contemplation—no music, no noise, no reading.  I sit, preferably in a semi-dark room, drink a cup of coffee, and just think.  I find I emerge on the other side of my brief respite more focused and mentally clear.  It is my version of the Buddhist meditation.  It is a matter of survival, and a way to stay focused in a cacophonous world.